As the final installment in J. K. Rowling's infamous Harry Potter series ("The Deathly Hallows – Part 2") hits the big screen this weekend, moviegoers may be unaware that some of the wizardly wonders found in and around Hogwarts have actually produced real-world learning tools for some of today's top medical researchers.
Dr. Martha Driessnack, an assistant professor and clinical genetics researcher at the University of Iowa College of Nursing, has been working with children across many different sub-specialties and health care settings for more than 25 years.
Driessnack said she was instantly drawn to the Harry Potter books and quickly realized the potential to use them as a teaching tool in hopes of building genetic literacy. For instance, the character of Hermione illustrates the idea of recessive genes because both her parents were "muggles" (mortals) who nevertheless produced a child wizard. Meanwhile, caretaker Argus Filch has no magical power despite the fact that both his parents did – possibly a case, Driessnack said, of incomplete penetrance of a gene.
"I learned about the books from children I was working with and then just loved the story," she said. "The genetics connection really began when a mom asked me how to answer her child's question about having the 'trait' for cystic fibrosis." Soon thereafter, Driessnack published a case study, "Growing Up at the Intersection of the Genomic Era and the Information Age," which discusses explaining the inheritance of such a serious medical condition using the Harry Potter series.
Driessnack said that the books introduce children to basic and advanced genetic concepts. For example, in a recent study exploring children's developing ideas about disease causation, risk, and inheritance, all of the children she interviewed were "familiar with Harry Potter; and, using their own words, all could explain autosomal recessive inheritance, incomplete penetrance, and variable expressivity, as well as the genetic discrimination" (something experienced by "half-blood" characters in the series).
Not surprisingly, Driessnack, a 2010-11 Collegiate Teaching Award-winner, focuses a good deal of her current research on what children know about genetics and how they come to know it. When "The Deathly Hallows – Part 2" opens Friday, she recommends looking for the genetic concepts weaved throughout the story.
In addition to genetic undertones, Driessnack highlights the importance of characters like Madam Pomfrey, who provide children with a contemporary nurse role model. "Like most pediatric nurses, she is a child advocate and confidant who approaches her professional calling seriously. While she was able to re-grow Harry's bones, fix his skull fracture, as well as undo curses and spells, she also was front and center when Harry needed emotional care after a classmate's death," she explained.
While you probably will not see Madam Pomfrey in this latest Harry Potter film, Dr. Driessnack predicts her presence will still be felt, "just like most pediatric nurses, who quietly make a difference every day, one child at a time."